Pillion to Pilot: A New Point of View

A new rider shares her experiences in taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation training course.

The group on course. I wonder why my bike — a dark blue 2019 Yamaha XV250 (far left) — had no mirrors?

Moving from the two-up position to piloting is a reality for an increasing number of women participating in recreational motorcycling.

I’ve been riding pillion for more than two years now. Granted I was a reluctant passenger at first for two good reasons: fear and safety. I’d seen too many younger motorcyclists roar up alongside my car in thick traffic, no helmet, no gloves, wearing shorts and flip-flops. This seemed unnecessarily reckless to me, but this was before I agreed to take a short trek on a vintage motorcycle through the countryside on a bright day in May. Two things happened that day. I fell in love with the 360-degree view with what I call smell-o-roma of a rural ride, and the comfortable, albeit somewhat measured pace of an older, more tempered machine. To my surprise, I loved both. I’ve ridden pillion on the gravel back roads of Kansas, the challenging streets of San Francisco, and the gorgeous coast and hills of California. I’ve been passenger on a 1973 BMW R75/5, a 1983 Laverda RGS 1000, a 1980 Moto Guzzi V50 Monza and a 2016 Ducati Scrambler. My pilot was patient and enthusiastic, provided all my gear, and explained all the quirks of makes and models that made the ride not only fun, but gave me a great deal to focus on while moving; I listened for and physically sensed those details in action. It was a rich introduction that became a serious hook. I’m told that I actually squealed with delight that first day. Motorcycling is a sensorial experience like no other.

Safety awareness for serious fear

If I enjoyed riding pillion so much, why bother learning to pilot my own bike? My very first thoughts of basic motorcycle training were really about safety. I thought it would be a good idea for me to know more about what is happening for my pilot. I believed that increasing my knowledge and awareness might actually increase our safety. Facing the fear of what could go wrong and understanding what can be done to minimize negative results just made good sense to me whether or not I actually enjoyed piloting on my own. Plus, I was just flat-out curious if I could do it.

Look down, go down: Though counter-intuitive at first, keeping head and eyes up while sensing good placement of hands and feet, was best.

My curiosity was paired with healthy fear. I’m 56 years old and have two children. I am a single parent. Like a lot of women my age, I have been shaped by a particular cultural influence regarding gender roles that complicate my psychological and social perspective. In other words, my fears are real; financial costs with loss of the ability to work given an accident, negative social judgement, and shaming gender expectations are all present for female riders. Yes, culture is changing, but many people do not respect women motorcyclists and stereotype them instead. Yet, my biggest fear was failure, any kind of failure, from not finishing the course, to dumping the bike. Over the course of two years riding two-up however, I processed a great deal of both real and irrational fear within a new community of men and women who love motorcycles. The positive and accepting conversations at most rides and events won out. Additionally, I was noticing that the opportunity to face raw physical fear each time I got in the saddle was helping me release a certain maternal fear that had taken hold of my guts since giving birth. It’s a basic fear that I think most parents feel, quietly humming beneath the surface as they watch their helpless children navigate a sometimes perilous world. The opportunity to be on a motorcycle was bringing me back into myself and helping me get grounded as an individual again. This was exciting and felt important.

10/21/2019 8:02:09 AM

I never had the opportunity to take a riding class before I got my fist, second, or third bike, but I'm sure glad that today new riders have someone who knows how to ride help them learn all the right stuff and especially glad that more women are giving motorcycles a try. Keep on keeping on.

10/3/2019 11:14:46 AM

great article, with an wonderful perspective on shifting from pillion to pilot (maybe we need a course that goes the other way. I've been riding since '72 and teraching since '80 and i'm still a nervous passenger) still disappointed that there are so few female instructors in the US that an all female class has to have a male instructor (we have at least three schools in BC that would have no trouble running an all female class with a female instructor). Also disappointing that you still can't get in traffic training for new riders in the US (we've been doing in traffic training for new riders since the early 70's and the province has been conducting on road testing for license qualification since 1999) .

10/3/2019 7:01:10 AM

Congrats and welcome to the tribe!

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